Owner rankings, Part 1: Brown makes ‘em laugh

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Mike Brown
(Tom Uhlman/AP Photo)

Mike Brown isn’t especially gifted in terms of economic generosity, entrepreneurial enterprise or assembling winning football teams. When it comes to unintentional comedy, however, the Cincinnati Bengals owner has no peers in his profession.

Year after year, Brown is the NFL’s answer to Yogi Berra. At league meetings you can always count on the backward-looking, disapproving Grinch to make a self-serving comment that leaves the room in hushed silence – and, later that night, provokes uncontrollable fits of laughter at dinner tables and on barstools.

There was the time Brown, while making an analogy about his change of heart regarding the waiving of club-seat premiums, invoked the name of Adolf Hitler. Another year Brown was the lone owner to speak out against commissioner Roger Goodell’s personal-conduct policy, insisting that each owner should be able to keep his/her own house in order – and ignoring the irony that the Bengals employed more miscreants than any other franchise.

Last spring Brown was at it again, this time as one of the only voices against lengthening the regular season. Brown’s concern about a potential move to an 18-game regular season (while cutting back to two preseason games) wasn’t based on player safety; rather, it had to do with weather considerations. “If you were giving me my choice,” Brown told a stunned audience of 50 owners and club executives, according to two witnesses, “I’d rather sell an extra preseason game in August than another regular season game in January. It’s bad for us to sell tickets in the cold. My fans would rather have the game when it’s warm.”

To Brown’s credit, he announced at last week’s owners’ meetings in Atlanta that he had changed his mind – he’d rather have a ninth regular season contest at Paul Brown Stadium than a second preseason home game. There was just one caveat: no home games in January. When NFL schedule czar Howard Katz assured Brown, “You can be away the last month of the season,” the owner enthusiastically agreed.

Said one NFC owner: “There are 31 teams who’d rather play at home down the stretch … and then there’s Mike Brown.”

Brown’s idiosyncratic displays of mini-rebellion are especially important now as I unveil my fifth-annual owner rankings, beginning with today’s assessment of the bottom half. In previous years the deep philosophical divides among owners, and the petty infighting that ensued, provided a bountiful flow of mock-worthy material. This year, with the owners hell-bent on a more favorable collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association and steeling for a potential lockout next March, their unprecedented unity has taken the edge off as they divert their enmity to a common enemy.

I’m confident that this will be a temporary state of affairs, and that the jealousies and examples of buffoonery revealed in our first, second, third and fourth summers of discontent will return with a bang in 2011 and beyond. Until then, enjoy this worst-to-first trip down multi-millionaire’s row (the top-16 owners will be unveiled Friday), which begins not with Brown but with the Hall of Famer who didn’t need an overhead projector to highlight his franchise’s dysfunction in 2009-10.

As always, the list is based on several factors, some related to the owners’ involvement on a league level and others based on the way they preside over their respective franchises. I’m partial toward owners who are proactive in their pursuit of revenue and who aggressively spend money in an effort to enhance their on-field product. I like winners – not the accidental kind, but the bosses whose relentless pursuit of excellence translates to sustained success – and I despise whiners.

Most of all, I try to ask myself a single overriding question: If you were a fan of this team, how would you feel about this person running the show?

Let’s start with a franchise whose passionate fans deserve much, much better:

32. Oakland Raiders – Al Davis: Remember when you could hear Davis state the Raiders’ motto, “Commitment To Excellence,” without activating your gag reflex? Now Davis, at 81, is committed to, what, arriving at the office before the sun goes down (something he can’t always accomplish these days)? Granted, the man’s age and health issues should not be causes for mockery; the real issue is the decayed, distrustful state in which Davis allows his franchise to toil as he becomes an increasingly absentee owner. Coach Tom Cable’s, ahem, accidental bumping of then-defensive assistant Randy Hanson last summer was the product of the paranoia and misplaced allegiances that Davis encourages, and the resulting inaction on his part as a manager led Hanson (still ostensibly employed as a personnel consultant) to sue Cable and the team, setting the stage for some potentially embarrassing revelations. Davis also stood by passively as Cable, after an ESPN report in which he was accused of domestic violence by two different women, issued a statement to the network in the hours before a game in San Diego admitting that he had once struck his ex-wife, Sandy. It would be one thing if Cable could coach, but he registered the team’s seventh-consecutive season with 11 defeats or more (an ongoing NFL record) in 2009 while coordinating an offense that scored just 17 touchdowns. Naturally, Davis chose to keep Cable on, perhaps still reeling from the premature firing and concurrent public trashing of prior coach Lane Kiffin. Davis was wrong about Kiffin, just as he claimed in his infamous overhead-projector press conference that Kiffin was wrong about quarterback JaMarcus Russell(notes). It turned out Davis was wrong about that, too, as evidenced by his decision to dump the player he picked first overall in the ’07 draft after three seasons of dubious dedication and meager productivity. In reality Davis, whose team had the league’s lowest attendance in ’09, spends more time thinking about money than winning. In 2007 he managed to convince three venture capitalists to pay him $150 million for 20 percent of the team – and zero say in its management. Now, after blowing the dough on busts like Russell, Javon Walker(notes) and Gibril Wilson(notes), Davis is looking for more: Sources say he tried to get the same venture capitalists to bite on another 20-percent chunk, with no success. Fortunately, he and his lackeys have their priorities in order, as evidenced by the franchise’s decision Wednesday to run a headline on the team’s website attacking an ESPN personality for reporting that the team had discussed trading for Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart(notes). Says an AFC owner: “He’s running a lunatic asylum. It’s a mess. No one has any idea what’s going on out there. I think it’s safe to say he wouldn’t be employed by 31 other teams.” Other than that, Davis is doing a bang-up job.

31. Cincinnati Bengals – Mike Brown: In 2009 the Bengals were one of the NFL’s pleasant surprises, winning the AFC North for the second time in five years under coach Marvin Lewis – the franchise’s only playoff appearances since 1990. Lewis, whose contract expires after the 2010 season, was honored as the AP’s coach of the year, and Brown responded by lowballing him in negotiations, setting up what is likely to be a lame-duck season. The owner also did his best to ensure that tackle Andre Smith(notes), the sixth-overall pick in the ’09 draft, would be a non-factor as a rookie: The team offered the rookie, who was known to have conditioning issues, a below-market deal that kept him out of training camp and away from the team until late August, when he finally caved. Smith then missed most of last season after fracturing his left foot just days after signing. Last summer we saw on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” that Brown runs the team’s personnel meetings, a truly scary thought for Cincy fans. Brown, shrewd and ever-conscious of the bottom line with perhaps the sweetest stadium deal of any owner in sports, reportedly offered $40 million in lease concessions to cash-strapped Hamilton County in exchange for the option of getting out of his lease (which runs through 2025) almost 10 years early, potentially increasing franchise value. On a league level, Brown is viewed as a contrarian with an aversion to progress. “He doesn’t have a conscience,” says the aforementioned NFC owner. “He’s all about revenue-sharing – he comes right out and says, ‘I just want some of your money.’ He’s worn out his welcome with 99 percent of that room. He came out and said that new stadiums are the worst thing to happen to the NFL because they raised the bar for other clubs. Unbelievable.”

30. Detroit Lions – William Clay Ford (Bill Ford Jr.): I could tell you that the Lions have been the league’s most pathetic franchise for more than a decade, but you already knew that. I could tell you that Detroit had the league’s second-lowest attendance last season. I could remind you that, in the wake of the Saints’ Super Bowl XLIV triumph, the Lions are now the only original NFL team never to have appeared in the Super Bowl (all XLIV of which have been contested with the Fords in charge). But what I’d really like to do is remind you that the franchise that once kept an assistant coach employed after he rolled up naked to a Wendy’s drive-through window continued its tradition of forgiveness when team president Tom Lewand was arrested for driving under the influence (he later struck a plea deal that reduced the charge to operating a vehicle while visibly impaired, earning six months of probation and a league-mandated 30-day suspension). It was a proud moment for the franchise, and it had to be especially gratifying to fans when the elder Ford said of Lewand, “He has all my support.” I suspect Ford Jr. wouldn’t be quite so forgiving, but for all his overt machismo – he showed up at training camp with a custom Ford GT that had employees oohing and aahing – he doesn’t seem to wear the pants for this franchise. As the AFC owner says, “The whole thing’s a joke.” Suffice it to say that they’re not laughing in Motown.

Lerner, right, with coach Eric Mangini.
(Tony Dejak/AP Photo)

29. Cleveland Browns – Randy Lerner: I hope Lerner sent a thank-you card to LeBron James this summer; only “The Decision” could make Cleveland fans forget the debacle of this checked-out boss’s stewardship. Since the recast Browns rejoined the league in ’99, only the Lions have a worse record, and Lerner’s disinterested management style and impulsive directional shifts are a big reason why. The low point came last November when Lerner, in an effort to show the increasingly riled-up fan base he truly cares about the Browns, hosted a meeting in his office with the fat guy who wears the giant dog bone on his head on Sundays and another disgruntled fan. Lerner, according to Dawgpound Mike, “listened to everything we had to say” and “asked our opinions on a number of things.” Undoubtedly Lerner had a great explanation for why he had a.) hired a power-mad coach, Eric Mangini, and allowed him to hand-pick his general manager; b.) fired said general manager, George Kokinis, who’d understandably bristled after being promised control over the roster, only to be informed that it was Mangini’s show; c.) been accused by his best player, Joshua Cribbs(notes), of reneging on a promise to renegotiate his contract. Ultimately Lerner chose to throw money at the problem, overpaying former Packers and Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren (a reported $40 million over five years) to come aboard as team president. Surely, Holmgren’s presence will be a huge improvement, but what Lerner was really doing was bringing in someone to take the heat if things go poorly, freeing him up to concentrate on his true passion: Aston Villa, the English Premier League soccer club he owns. It would be one thing if Holmgren, who has coached in three Super Bowls, were putting on a headset or grooming a protégé. Instead, he kept Mangini, a move sources say Lerner strongly advised him to make (to keep the owner from eating yet another ill-advised contract). “The guy just doesn’t give a [damn],” the NFC owner says of Lerner. “He has no passion. You just shouldn’t be in something with this much at stake if you just don’t give a [damn].”

28. Chicago Bears – Virginia McCaskey (George McCaskey/Michael McCaskey): In 1999, Michael McCaskey was removed as team president after a fiasco of a head-coaching search in which Dave McGinnis was announced as Dave Wannstedt’s replacement before agreeing to contract terms, blowing up the deal. He lasted another decade as the team’s chairman of the board before ostensibly announcing his resignation – effective at the end of this season, when he’ll be replaced by younger brother George, the team’s senior director of ticket operations. “That’s how desperate his mother [Virginia] is,” one rival owner speculated. “She replaced him with her son from the box office. I mean, how hard of a job is being the ticket manager for the Bears?” Not that pedigree bears much meaning in the McCaskey family. After all, Michael, a former Harvard business professor, managed a storied franchise in the nation’s No. 3 media market and will leave behind a financial state of affairs that, in relative terms, can best be described as flaccid. “It’s just mismanagement,” another owner says. “They really should be the tops in revenue, ahead of Dallas. Someday someone else will get a hold of that thing and it’ll be a monster.” Uh, maybe not. After announcing he was stepping down Michael McCaskey told reporters, “We intend for our family to own the Bears as long as you care to think about it.” As a going-away present, at a time when even the most free-spending of his peers went out of their way to demonstrate financial restraint in anticipation of a labor showdown, Michael McCaskey doled out a six-year, $91.5 million contract to free-agent defensive end Julius Peppers(notes), despite the perception that there were no other serious bidders – then hiked ticket prices on 75 percent of the seats at Soldier Field.

27. Arizona Cardinals – Bill Bidwill (Michael Bidwill): When I think back to the Cardinals’ near-victory in Super Bowl XLIII, why do I confuse it with the previous year’s game at the Cardinals’ home stadium? Ah, that’s right, because Tom Petty was the Super Bowl XLII halftime singer, and the lyrics to one of his classic songs – “Even the losers get lucky sometimes” – could have been written for the cheap, small-thinking Bidwills. For all of the talk about Matt Leinart’s failure to seize his opportunity as retired quarterback Kurt Warner’s(notes) presumed successor, remember that the Bidwills’ lowballing of the player most responsible for their first-ever NFC championship after the ’08 season led the quarterback to seriously consider the overtures of the division-rival 49ers, which would have accelerated the Cards’ current nightmare by a year. Let’s hope this week’s re-signing of defensive tackle Darnell Dockett(notes) – six months after he took shots at the franchise for its passive approach to start free agency – is a positive sign of change.

26. Buffalo Bills – Ralph Wilson: Remember when Jerry Rubin and the Yippies used to say, “Never trust anyone over 30”? The 90-year-old Wilson’s motto seems to be “Never trust anyone under 70” – a trend he continued when he hired septuagenarian Buddy Nix as his general manager last December. (Do they serve 4 p.m. dinners at the Bills’ training facility? Do they blast Perry Como in the weight room? Sorry. I’ll stop now …) In fairness to Wilson and Nix, they turned to a young whippersnapper as their head coach, hiring 58-year-old prodigy Chan Gailey in an attempt to end a decade-long playoff drought. It’s not just the playoffs the Bills have been missing; after the team used its top draft pick on explosive halfback C.J. Spiller(notes), Wilson explained, “We’ve been dull for 10 years. We’ve got to create some excitement.” Wilson, who raised ticket prices after last season, continues to create revenues – after years of listening to him whine about his small-market struggles, the other owners placated Wilson in ’08 with a five-year deal to play eight games in Toronto, which guaranteed him $78 million. Not bad for a guy who paid $25,000 for his franchise in 1959. And while I’m not thrilled about Wilson as an owner, I’d love to see him get a gig as a draft analyst. In addition to the frank comment about the Spiller selection, Wilson was in fine form last April, lampooning the Broncos for trading up to move in front of the Bills and draft quarterback Tim Tebow(notes) with the 25th overall pick. “Denver panicked,” Wilson said. “We were not moving up to take Tebow.” I’m sure his Broncos counterpart, Pat Bowlen, was thrilled upon hearing that statement.

25. Miami Dolphins – Stephen Ross: All style and no substance? That’s my takeaway on Ross 19 months into his tenure as the team’s controlling owner, and some of his peers have similar suspicions. When you’re looking for a celebrity minority partner or a VIP stadium experience that includes a South Beach-style club or cabanas, Ross is most definitely your man. If you’re looking for someone to set an organizational tone of excellence and integrity – well, I was hard on Wayne Huizenga in the last couple of years of his ownership, but I’m definitely missing the man right now. After I broke the news in April that Miami general manager Jeff Ireland had asked Dez Bryant(notes) in a pre-draft interview if the receiver’s mother was a prostitute – a great day for the Dolphins’ brand – I thought Ross might finally overcome his fear of executive vice president Bill Parcells’ shadow and assert his authority. But Ross, from what I can tell, did little more than throw out hollow rhetoric, which is one of his specialties. During a June appearance at Miami Beach High School, Ross proclaimed that the Dolphins would play in the Super Bowl next February, a prediction he upgraded to “going all the way” in an interview with the Miami Herald two months later. Hey, at least Rex Ryan is one of the game’s great defensive strategists; Ross is the guy in a suit talking smack about his football team. To his credit, Ross thinks big on an economic level, too – his plan is to leverage South Florida for improvements to Sun Life Stadium that keep it in the Super Bowl rotation. According to Forbes magazine, he recently refinanced his stadium debt to create a bigger cash reserve, anticipating the possible work stoppage next spring. Not all of his business moves have been so savvy. Ross purchased Kangaroo TV (since re-branded as FanVision), a mobile TV maker whose product, the owner believes, will enhance fans’ game-day experience. He then offered 5,000 free units to each of the NFL’s 31 other teams, in return for their pledge to promote and market the devices to their respective fans. So far, there have only been 12 takers. In the meantime, we’ll see if the Dolphins are worth watching in 2010 – or if chilling in the cabana would be preferable.

24. Tennessee Titans – Bud Adams: If you were a super-rich 87-year-old who just doesn’t give a damn, would you: a.) flip the bird in the direction of an opposing team’s sidelines from your luxury box as your team is triumphing in a football game; b.) order your head coach, one of the league’s best, to make a quarterback switch a week before he was otherwise inclined; c.) after the QB switch turned out to be a great move, publicly gloat that it was your idea, thus undermining the coach’s authority; d.) give quotes to reporters lambasting the “big mistakes” that your coach and general manager have made, a season removed from an AFC-best 13-3 campaign; or e.) all of the above? Yep, the answer is E, as Adams most certainly was a freak of the industry this past year. While Adams’ middle-fingered salutes, presumably to Bills counterpart and old AFL rival Wilson (I’d love to know what’s going on there), wasn’t particularly offensive to me, it probably didn’t play as well in the Bible Belt, and it did reduce Adams’ personal wealth by $250,000. Of course Adams did the same thing, figuratively, to coach Jeff Fisher after the team’s disastrous 0-6 start, insinuating that the coach’s job was in jeopardy and forcing him to bench quarterback Kerry Collins(notes) for Vince Young(notes). (Fisher would have likely waited a week so that Young, who’d been mentally fragile after being booed by the home fans in the previous season’s opener, could make his debut on the road.) Give Adams credit: Young’s insertion into the lineup gave the Titans a spark, and Tennessee won eight of its final 10 games. That, of course, was a testament to Fisher’s coaching, but Adams has taken every opportunity to remind us that he was responsible for the turnaround. What can I say? The man is an accidental genius – and he just doesn’t give a damn, which I must admit makes him a fascinating figure. On the other hand, he’s notoriously cheap. What does it say when a team’s star player (Chris Johnson) publicly calls his employer “a team that is not known for [paying]”?

23. Jacksonville Jaguars – Wayne Weaver: Yes, the man I ranked last two years ago and nicknamed “Whine Weaver” is moving up on the list yet again as he tries to make it work in a struggling market that probably shouldn’t have an NFL team. Based on conversations with several of his peers, I still believe Weaver wants out, at the right price, but he has kept his complaining to a minimum and has tried to become a team player on the league level. As the chair of the business ventures committee, Weaver helped spearhead the record-setting sponsorship deal with Anheuser-Busch that more than doubled the league’s previous take (from its contract with Coors) in that category. And when credit-card sponsor Bank of America tried to get the league to accept a less favorable deal than its previous one, and numerous owners were prepared to comply, Weaver remained defiant. “He held the line on B of A and wouldn’t bend over to do a deal on their terms,” one owner says of Weaver. “He said, ‘No, [expletive] it, we’re not going to get [expletive] by them.’ And even in this lousy economy, he went and got a better deal from Barclays.” Weaver also enjoyed a small victory on the local level. Though only one Jags home game was televised last season, and they have nothing but blackouts in their future (the Stones’ “Paint It, Black” should be blared over the loudspeakers before every kickoff), he did manage to swing a stadium naming-rights deal with Everbank for a reported $16.6 million over five years.

Benson has to do more than win a Super Bowl to move high up in the rankings.
(Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

22. New Orleans Saints – Tom Benson (Rita LeBlanc Benson): If these rankings were as knee-jerk as some fans would like them to be, Benson would have boogied way up toward the top of the list in the wake of the Saints’ stirring Super Bowl XLIV triumph. Alas, we look at the big picture here, and though Benson has certainly been a much better boss in the years since Hurricane Katrina (and then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s insistence that the team would not be moved from New Orleans), it’s the fans who deserve the bulk of the credit, as the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s Jeff Duncan pointed out so poignantly in a recent article. For all his improvements as an owner, be they motivated by altruism or pragmatism, Benson remains a relative spendthrift who isn’t blowing away peers with his league-wide vision and leadership. That said, Benson does chair the finance committee, and as the AFC owner notes, “It’s good to have a small-market voice in that role, and he puts a lot of time into it.” Benson, whose capable granddaughter, Rita, handles most of the franchise’s day-to-day operations, will watch his team kick off the 2010 season against the Vikings next Thursday in an upgraded Superdome with 16 new luxury boxes (and major renovations still to come after the 2010 campaign) and a big waiting list for season tickets. He’s also working with the state on developing land around the stadium.

21. Seattle Seahawks – Paul Allen: The Microsoft co-founder plummeted eight spots from last year’s ranking, and no, it’s not because he recently filed a patent-infringement lawsuit against my employer, among others. (Still, if CEO Carol Bartz and other Yahoo! bigwigs are reading this, I wonder if they’re thinking, “Wow, that Michael Silver is a hell of a team player. Mess with the Exclamation Point, and he will alter your reality and punctuate it with a figurative foot up your rear end. Talk about purple pride. I’m so glad we have him on our side!” But I digress …) I’ve long been critical of Allen for being detached on a league level – he almost never attends meetings – and now his highly regarded right-hand man, CEO Tod Leiweke, is on his way out. Leiweke, who will give up his job running the Seahawks, Portland Trailblazers and MLS Seattle Sounders (all owned by Allen) to take a job as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s CEO – he’s hanging around until a replacement is named – said the lure of gaining a small ownership interest in the NHL franchise was what sparked his decision. Some of Allen’s fellow owners, however, believe Leiweke left because he was tired of working for a demanding, idiosyncratic billionaire. “Leiweke was great,” one owner says, “and he goes from running your NFL team, NBA team and the most successful MLS team to running a hockey team in Tampa? Honestly, how is that not a statement about [Allen’s] ownership?” Let’s face it: This was a disastrous year for the franchise all the way around. Following the debacle in which Holmgren spent a lame-duck season as the Seahawks’ coach in ’08 while assistant Jimmy Mora hung out as his contractually anointed successor, Mora was canned after a single year on the job, causing Allen to eat $12 million. Then he gave another $35 million (over five years) to woo USC coach Pete Carroll at a time when the Trojans were facing major sanctions and the former Jets and Pats head coach was clearly looking for an escape route. Throw in the fact that Allen allowed Holmgren and since-fired general manager Tim Ruskell to engage in a bitter feud for three seasons after the team’s disappointing Super Bowl XL defeat. Back then the Seahawks had a massive waiting list for season tickets; it has since gone the way of Courtney Love’s post-Cobain music career.

20. Atlanta Falcons – Arthur Blank: In owner circles Blank is regarded as a man with a huge sense of self – and in a room full of rich folks, that’s saying something. Yet after getting burned, badly, by the Michael Vick(notes) fiasco, Blank is starting to create an environment worthy of his boasting. General manager Thomas Dimitroff is among the league’s best, and his predecessor, team president Rich McKay, remains a respected figure on the league level while attempting to address the franchise’s dubious stadium situation. McKay said in May that the Falcons would like a new stadium sometime in the next seven years. The problem is that the Georgia Dome makes a ton of money for the state and almost certainly won’t be torn down, leaving the Falcons, who get only $5 million annually off their stadium deal, to pine for a second facility, perhaps one with a retractable roof. Good luck with that in this economy, fellas. In the meantime, things are looking up for the Falcons, who are coming off consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, have an exceptionally promising young quarterback in Matt Ryan(notes) and have successfully washed away the stench of Vick’s dog-fighting scandal.

19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Bryan, Joel and Ed Glazer: In the past, the Glazers have been as high as third in my rankings – they’re smart businessmen who have found innovative ways to thrive in a small market without complaint, and they’ve tried very, very hard to field a superior on-the-field product. So what happened? Well, since firing coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen following the ’08 season, they’ve basically stopped spending, hiring neophyte in-house replacements (Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik, respectively) on the cheap and taking advantage of the uncapped year to assemble one of the league’s least-expensive rosters. Some people believe this is because the Glazers, who own Manchester United (the world’s second-most valuable sports franchise), are cash-strapped. In June, after the BBC reported that the family had amassed debts of nearly $1.5 billion, the Glazers issued a sharp denial that they were financially compromised and rejected the notion that they had borrowed from the Bucs to help cope with their financial situation. Perhaps not, but to other owners, the eye in the sky doesn’t lie. “Anyone who has a lot of debt, be it a company or individual, is heavily leveraged in this economy,” the NFC owner says. “They’re deep into real estate [via the family-owned First Allied Corp.] and it’s killing them, and their market that has been especially brutalized.” Still, Man U is a major cash cow, and the Glazers aren’t stupid. Some owners believe they’re simply laying low in anticipation of a probable work-stoppage and will resume their aggressive spending of years past once there’s a new CBA and the young team is in position to be more competitive. Says the AFC owner, “They might simply be saying, ‘We’re not gonna piss away money cause we’re not very good right now.’ Whether they’re right or wrong, they’re picking their spots.” If that’s the case then the word that comes to mind is weak. It’s easy to question the franchise’s direction on numerous levels: It remains debatable whether Morris was sufficiently ready for this opportunity, and the fans have understandably voiced their displeasure in the form of a shrunken season-ticket waiting list. It’s anticipated that the Bucs will experience their first local TV blackouts in 15 years this season, and according to the recent Forbes rankings Tampa Bay fell out of the top 10 in league revenue last season.

18. St. Louis Rams – Stan Kroenke: The league’s approval last month of Kroenke’s bid to take over the Rams from Chip Rosenbloom and Lucia Rodriguez gave the franchise an instant and appreciable bounce in my rankings, and I expect the trend to continue with Stan the Man in charge. A minority owner since the franchise moved to St. Louis in 1993, Kroenke, a Missouri native, is highly regarded in NFL ownership circles. He has earned high marks for the way he has run organizations he owns in other sports, including the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and NHL’s Colorado Avalanche (he’ll turn over operational and financial control of both to his son, Josh, to satisfy the NFL’s cross-ownership rules) and Arsenal of the English Premier League. Short on bluster and long on performance, Kroenke should immediately help a franchise that has been rudderless since Georgia Frontiere’s death in early ’08 (and, some would argue, long before that) and which has a stadium situation almost as lousy as the team’s recent on-the-field product. “That will change with Stan,” one owner predicted. “He’s a good one.”

17. Denver Broncos – Pat Bowlen: On draft day it was clear that Josh McDaniels, the young Bill Belichick disciple to whom Bowlen entrusted control of his football operations after firing longtime coach Mike Shanahan on the final day of 2008, has found unadulterated love. The coach is gaga over Tebow, the former Heisman Trophy winner who’ll try to be the franchise’s 21st century John Elway. That doesn’t necessarily bother me. Coaches fall hard for young players all the time. However, I suspect that Bowlen remains similarly smitten with McDaniels, and I’m not convinced that the former Patriots offensive coordinator has accomplished anything to warrant that affection. So until McDaniels proves me wrong by winning big (and he lost eight of his final 10 games last season following an impressive 6-0 start), I’m going to believe that Bowlen is a once-formidable owner who has lost his fastball. On a positive note, he has a highly regarded chief operating officer in Joe Ellis and remains a respected force in league matters. He co-chairs the CEC (the NFL management council’s executive committee) with the Panthers’ Jerry Richardson, putting him at the forefront of the all-important push for a new CBA, and generally puts the league’s interests above his own. Bowlen, like many of his peers, has had to adapt to a less-favorable economic climate. According to Forbes he is carrying $150 million in stadium debt, and there are rumors he’s looking for minority investors as a means of securing additional capital. Hmmmm … I know it sounds crazy, but if he’s looking for advice, perhaps he should give his old adversary and division rival in Oakland a call.

Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Sep 2, 2010